Marcelo makes soup for the homeless from the discards of markets and the generosity of fishermen. At five am, his wind-up clock rings near his head. More often than not he’ll hear pounding on the wall and, if he’s not quick to shut if off, a loud curse about his mother and a mongrel dog. He dresses easily. In this climate, loose pantalones, a button-up short-sleeve and his sandals with tire-tread soles are all he needs to be decent in public. He doesn’t bother with his hair, what little is left he covers with a beige fedora made by a local milliner. His teeth though, those he holds in high regard. His bright, soldier-straight smile is a fan of the mujeres and being a fan of the ladies gives him hope. He brushes them well before setting out.
One such lady, Margarita, who wears a different colorful scarf for every day of the week, works at Libby’s Mercado three blocks from the beach. Libby’s is his first stop this morning. But first he must wake the neighborhood. An admirer of Harry Belafonte, he favors calypso music and reggae, yesterday he sang Marley’s Three Little Birds. But today, he happened to hear a beat that hearkened back to his youth.
“Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera…”
He’d never been to Cuba, few people had. But the song was universal.
“Yo soy un hombre sincero, de don de crece la palma…”
“Buenos dias, Marcelo.” Elna the gossip, her ear to the street, rarely fails to hail Marcelo during his sunrise serenade. “I hear Libby’s got fresh mangoes in yesterday, they’ll be dumping the old ones, I’m sure.” Then quietly, “I’m sorry about your shack.”
Marcelo has learned to ignore her. He waves and nods. He never shows his teeth to Elna.
“Antes des morirme quiero, echar mis versos del alma, Guantanamera, guajira, guantanamera…”
“Hola, señor. A lil’ Cuban today, eh?” Tomas and Marcelo have been friends since the hurricane in ’93. When Tomas needs to go to the hospital—his amputated leg above the knee still weeps, the prosthetic fits so poorly—Marcelo will assist him on and off the bus and into the examination room.
Marcelo tips his hat. “Tomas, mi amigo, how’s the leg today?”
Tomas’ beard needs trimming. He strokes it like he’s milking a cow. “Not good, not bad. Say, what’s on the menu for lunch?”
“The captain of the Lucky Loser promised me a whole bonito. If he can spare it, he said.”
“Don’t count your fish before they’re in the stew, my friend.”
Marcelo continues his journey. He gets to thinking about all the false promises the captain has made. “I may need to make amends with Rafael and that bruja of his.” Rafael’s wife, Bico had tried to stab Marcelo three years ago when she’d mistaken him for her ex-husband.
Off his sunny mood, he trudges the final few blocks to Libby’s.
“What? No song for me today, mi amor?” Margarita motions Marcelo to hurry around back.
“Now that I see your beautiful face, how can I feel sad.” He offers his hand, she accepts, and he swings her close. “Para bailar la bamba…”
“Oh, stop it you old tonto.”
“I’m an old fool, an old fool for you.”
“I have bad news, Marcelo.”
“You are married. I know. But la bamba calls to us, does it not?”
“No, I mean yes, but there’s something else.” She pushes him away. “The policia, they have closed down your cocina de playa.”
“Closed my kitchen?”
“Someone says they got sick.”
“Sick from my sopa? No.” Marcelo removes his hat and rubs his wisp of hair in circles. “I am careful. You know I’m careful, don’t you, Mago?”
“Si, I’m so sorry mijo.”
“What can I do?”
“Fight. You must go to the policia and find out your accuser.”
Marcelo is no stranger to the police. The poor and homeless who come to him for meals, sometimes more than a hundred a day, are often followed by their past. Crime and poverty walk hand in hand, he knows this. He’s harbored more than his share of criminals hiding from thugs and officials, alike. They plead that they will stray no more and he believes them, for a while. He soothes their minds and fills their bellies and prays that they will find a truth they can embrace.
His own truth came to him years ago. His wife and son died in a building fire. He’d been away, working for man who would pay well for carpenters to build furniture with secret compartments. Marcelo knew the purpose of such pockets. But the money, if he could keep the job, would help his wife and child to leave the dirty city and move to where he could start his own business.
When they died, the only purpose he’d ever had died too. For years he and the policia became well acquainted. His own truth arrived on a high tide when the beach-side hovel he slept in, most often drunk, became inundated and he nearly drown. He was pulled to safety by the owner of a soup shack who made ceviche and fish stew. When the man, Luca, died from lung cancer, he took over the shack.
“I don’t know that I have fight in me anymore, Margarita.”
He tips his hat and slumps away, back the way he’d come. The sun has risen and many folks are busy in the streets and along the avenues where the taxis park and honk their horns. Down at the beach he finds his shack. It’s a propane grill with an iron burner-stand to hold a big aluminum pot. It has a tin roof, a cabinet for bowls and utensils and a plank counter. He stares at it, mystified. The whole shanty is wrapped in police tape.
There’s a crowd of people gathered. Tomas is among them. When Tomas sees him, he hobbles over. “Marcelo, it was that bitch Bico who says she was poisoned by your soup.”
“Si, that bruja with the tattoos that look like goats and skulls.”
“I don’t know what to do, Tomas.” Marcelo walks toward the water. The sea is calm with tiny white curls of froth slapping and running up the beach. He sits above the wet and holds his hat in both hands, working his fingers around the brim.
“You must fight. For years I have eaten your fine sopa. She’s a lying bitch. We all know that.”
“Maybe it is time for others to feed the hungry. Your grandson, he has helped me many times.”
“Are you giving up?”
Marcelo slips off his sandals and curls his toes. The sun is hot so he returns his hat and give it a cant. He’s reminded of the song he sang that morning.
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera…
A sincere man am I
From the land where palm trees grow,
And I want before I die
My soul’s verses to bestow. — Jose Marti